By Sabina Mollot
On Friday, March 30, the man known to many as “Gino the tailor,” Gino DiGirolamo, died at the age of 82. The owner of Royal Tailor, which was located in the East Village for 52 years, had suffered a heart attack a month ago that he never recovered from. His son Vito, 51, said his father, after having the heart attack on an L train platform, was taken to Beth Israel, where he stayed for ongoing treatment. He was visited regularly by friends and Vito, but the elder DiGirolamo never regained consciousness.
In an interview with Town & Village three years ago, DiGirolamo, then working out of an East 14th Street shop across from Stuyvesant Town, spoke of his intention to retire after getting socked with a hefty rent increase. He’d been in that space for a few years, after moving from the original shop on Avenue A. However, his livelihood was later saved when he found a nearby affordable space on East 11th Street.
As he had before, DiGirolamo worked long and hard, around 80 hours a week, commuting to the shop from his home in Ozone Park, Queens.
Vito recalled how his father, a native of Sicily, loved his work, had a great sense of humor and enjoyed good food, in particular Italian staple dishes like pasta and seafood. His wife, Adriana, who was often with him while he worked, died in 2013.
DiGirolamo had bought Royal Tailor from his then-employer for $1,000 in 1963. He was hesitant at the time since he spoke little English, but decided to take the risk when a local woman offered to work for him as a translator. She ended up working for him for years and her picture remained on the wall of his shop.
DiGirolamo got into tailoring in Italy but got turned off to customers’ habits of dropping off clothing only to return for it months later.
Once in business for himself, he began working nights instead of days, which he previously told T&V made him more productive, since at night, “Nobody bothers me.”
Though customers still popped in, he also worked with his radio on for company as he sewed his way through an ever-present heap of clothes on the counter. He didn’t have a preference for the kind of assignment he’d get. “I’ll do anything,” he said.
Since word of his death has gotten around, customers and friends from Stuyvesant Town and the East Village have been mourning his loss, all swapping stories about his tiny, cluttered shop and the inconsistent hours he kept as well as his skilled craftmanship at often bargain-basement prices.
Stuyvesant Town resident Matthew Handal, a customer and friend, said he knew DiGirolamo for 30 years.
“He was a wonderful, exceptional tailor, willing to do repairs no one else would bother with because it wasn’t worth their time. It wasn’t profitable. Gino would do it, very well I might add, and I know tailoring, but he would not charge very much,” said Handal. He added that sometimes the tailor wouldn’t want to take his money at all so Handal tried to repay him by bringing him food or doing him favors.
He also recalled how, being a perfectionist, this sometimes meant DiGirolamo would procrastinate on projects, so “Clients knew if he said something would be ready by such and such a date to take it with a grain of salt unless they really needed something. If so, they got it on time.”
Handal added, “I think I have the record: he still hasn’t finished my tuxedo and it’s been thirteen years, but that’s okay. I haven’t needed it and I knew, if I did, it would be done and I knew I could trust him with it.”
Oddly, despite the clutter and the fact that DiGirolamo didn’t bother with a ticketing system, he always knew where to find customers’ clothes. Even if they’d long since forgotten them.
“His shop looked like it was hit by a hurricane,” said Handal. “He didn’t want to throw anything out, even though it was unclaimed for years, because maybe, just maybe, they would come to reclaim them someday.”
Another friend turned customer, Susan Mitchell, an East Village resident, said she would also offer DiGirolamo more money for his services than he’d charge her. But he still wouldn’t take it.
“He was more than a tailor. He was a magician,” she said. “He would restructure vintage garments. He could mend anything and he could restructure anything. He just loved his work. It was like an art form.”
Mitchell added that his little shop often felt “like a social club. Everyone talked to him while he was sewing.”
She also visited DiGirolamo when he was at the hospital a number of times, playing her violin for him. She did so after reading certain types of music could stimulate the brain. This turned out to be worth the effort as at one point when she was playing her friend opened his eyes. “I was happy to have some contact with him,” Mitchell said.
Another friend, Lisa Williams, is attempting to crowdfund some sort of marker for him in the neighborhood or a charitable donation in his honor online.
DiGirolamo’s wake will be held at Lanza Funeral Home, 43 Second Ave. between Second and Third Streets on Sunday, April 8 from 2-8 p.m. The burial will be at St. John’s Cemetery in Middle Village, Queens, on Monday, April 9 at 11 a.m.